You’re curious, so we find answers. Our education team fields lots of questions from our guests during classes, so we’ve decided to launch a brand new series of monthly installments in which we tackle some of those questions and share the answers with the world. We call it The Education Station. This week, Cynthia takes a close look at cacao pods, and answers a question she’s been getting a lot ever since she started importing fresh pods from Ecuador for classes: when is a cacao pod ripe?
A cacao pod—the fruit of the theobroma cacao tree—starts off as a tiny flower, and over the course of many months after it’s pollinated, that flower gives way to a plump and colorful pod filled with seeds. The fruit has a long growing season and even grows year round in some countries, typically between 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Unlike many of the fruits we’re used to in the US, cacao pods grow year round, and they don’t all tend to ripen at the same time or even in the same season.
Take a look at the tree below. Note that there are tiny flowers growing directly on the trunk. You can see two of them approximately in the middle of the trunk in this photo. At the same time, we notice the unripe cacao fruit which is the deep almost purplish red fruit with hints of green on the top left side. And there is ripe cacao fruit too, the yellowish pods with a dusting of red on the trunk near the flowers.
What does that tell you? You can have many pods on one tree all with varying levels of ripeness. You are likely to harvest some pods now, others next week or in a few months, and if you wait for those flowers to become ripe pods you’ll be back to harvest them in five or six months. So how does one know which pods are ripe?
IS IT THE COLOR?
You might think, based on your experience with fruit throughout your life, that we could guess a pod’s ripeness based on its color. You’re not wrong, but you’re not totally right either (sorry). Judging ripeness isn’t as simple as looking at the color because there are so many different types of cacao, and the way they express their ripeness varies.
Think about apples. Are you thinking about apples? Good. Think about all the different kinds in a grocery store—green Granny Smith or Gravenstein, blushing red and yellow Fuji, or deep red Ruby Delicious. They’re different colors but all of them might be ripe, and the same is true of cacao. I’ve seen cacao fruit that was ripe when it was red and cacao fruit that was unripe when it was red.
At the same time, if the apples on the tree in your back yard always started out green and turn red when ripe, you would know to wait until they turned red. Someone who had no idea what type of apple tree you had might not know whether it produced green, yellow or red apples, and wouldn’t know when to pick them. This is why cacao farmers must get to know their trees so well. But how are the rest of us to know? Luckily, there are a few tricks.
1. SHAKE THE POD
When you shake a whole pod, do you feel the insides moving around slightly? If yes, it’s probably ripe. Or is it sloshing around like a can of soup? If that’s the case then it’s likely overripe. As the cacao pod ripens, the sugars and pulp in the fruit develop and the seeds loosen from the husk, making a juicy, sloshy fruit. If a pod is unripe, the fruit will be more connected to the outer husk and will feel more like shaking a solid object, like that apple we started out with.
So, great! That was easy. Just shake the pod and listen. But wait, is there a way to test ripeness before you’ve gone and cut the pod off the tree? Good question. We learned another trick from our friend Will when we harvested cacao at his farm, Steelgrass Farms, in Kauai.
2. GET UNDER THE SKIN
Okay, this might sound like the most annoying option but I promise it’s not. (But I don’t promise to stop the bad jokes). The color of a cacao pod is the color of only the very thin, outer layer of the husk. The color of the thick husk beneath that skin changes depending on ripeness. If you scrape the husk with your fingernail and find green underneath like I did in the photo above, the fruit is unripe. If you scrape the husk and find yellow or white, then it’s ripe. And that’s that!
Now that you can’t wait to try out these techniques (I can see you jumping out of your seat), your next question might be: where can I find a cacao pod?? Luckily for you, no need to get yourself to a cacao farm. We’ve got fresh cacao pods weekly in the factory, and all you have to do is sign up for our Chocolate 101 class! We’ll also bring them to occasional demos, like our upcoming demo on June 10th from 1-3pm at the Conservatory of Flowers.